I’ve told some pretty curious stories over the course of this blog’s existence, but never so unusual as the one I’m about to tell.
The one about my grandpa, and Salvador Dali, and pork fried rice.
They met (my grandpa and Dali, that is — we’ll get to the Chinese food later) in a most unusual way. Not that anyone ever met Salvador Dali in a routine fashion, I imagine.
It started at my grandpa’s employer, Time-Life, in the early ’50s. Dali, learning that the magazine had put him on its cover 15 years earlier, showed up at Time-Life’s offices in Stamford one day demanding a tour.
Sitting at his draftsman’s table, my grandfather idly began sketching a caricature of Dali’s pet ocelot, Babou. Spotting the drawing, the flamboyant surrealist flung his cape across my grandpa’s shoulders and declared him “a kindred spirit.”
Thus began a 20-year friendship in which the world’s most famous surrealist and Hope Street’s most famous realist — known to each other as “Sal” and “Beel” — would get together to share their distinctly different perspectives on The Artist’s Life.
Sometimes, these kaffeeklatsches would take place at my grandfather’s humble house on Hope Street, at the oilcloth-covered kitchen table.
Other times, Dali and my grandpa would meet for Chinese buffet lunches at what my aunt recalls as “this really mediocre place in New Canaan.”
My grandpa would nurse some cashew chicken, Dali would sip his tea with chopsticks, and they would discuss everything from heaven and hell to the best way to paint sunlight.
My dad, incidentally, confirms that the apparent erasure before the word “SAL” on this calendar entry reflects the absence of Dali’s wife, Gala, who was scheduled to attend this lunch meeting but was unable to make it.
(My grandmother, for her part, never took part in these meetings of the minds. When asked about them, she would smile wanly and declare, “I decided I’d leave the art to the artists.” My great-grandmother would simply shake her head and mumble something disgusted in German when the subject of Dali came up.)
The Chinese buffet meetings ended one afternoon in the early ’70s when Dali emptied out his egg roll, refilled it with tinfoil and presented it to the astonished waiter, declaring the filling to be “cah-BAHGE.” My grandpa quickly settled the check.
There were a few more get-togethers after that, but the two artists had reached a point of maximum mutual understanding.
Over a handshake at the Dairy Queen near my grandfather’s house, Sal and Beel wished each other the best and marched off in their respective artistic directions — one headed to City Hall to pay his water bill, the other pulling a tangerine on a studded leash.
Interestingly, my grandfather’s association with the great Dali produced absolutely no shift in his artistic inclinations. He remained a realist through and through.
(After one particularly mind-bending session with his pal Sal, my granddad did come home and sketch a series of melting calendars. Those sketches unfortunately were not saved.)
My grandfather never said much about his private association with one of 20th-century art’s leading figures. A faraway look, a “He knew a lot about art” or a “He taught me a lot” were about all I could ever coax out of him.
Perhaps his clearest and most explicit comment about his connection with Dali lies in a calendar entry he made around this time of year in 1964.
A very happy — and early — April Fool’s Day to one and all. Now go out and do something surreal.